Animals talking, winds whispering, moral lessons learned – sound familiar? In your childhood, you may have heard a fable or two. But what exactly makes a story a fable? Can fables also be poems? Read on to find out!

Fable Fable

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Table of contents

    Fable: meaning

    The meaning of a fable is that it is a fictional story in the form of a poem or prose that features anthropomorphic forms of creatures, animals, plants, birds, etc., to teach the reader a moral lesson. The author of a fable is known as a fabulist.

    An example of a fable is The Lorax (1971) by Dr Seuss.

    Anthropomorphic: an adjective used to describe a non-human being that has been given human qualities, such as the ability to speak or reason.

    Fable: genre

    Fables are located at the intersection of other genres, especially fantasy and folk- and fairy tales. Since non-human entities, such as trees, animals, and birds, are given human characteristics, like being able to speak a language, fables qualify as a work of fantasy. Fables are also tales of fantastic imagination, as they may feature legendary mythic creatures and beasts.

    Some of the earliest fables travelled down generations through the tradition of oral storytelling and often featured elements of fairy tales and folktales, as they were inspired by specific cultures in certain regions.

    Krishna Dharma's Panchatantra (2004) is based on folk tales and fables from the Indian culture dating back to 200 BCE.

    Characteristics of a fable

    Fables include some specific characteristics:

    Characteristics of fablesExplanationFable examples
    Fables are short and simpleDoes not include complex details and is not overly lengthy. This is perhaps because fables are meant to teach moral values to children, so the stories are easily comprehensible.'The Ant and the Grasshopper'. The message is that the grasshopper must plan ahead and work hard like the ant.
    Fables tend to teach a moral lesson at the end, which may or may not be condensed into a proverbHaving lessons at the end helps to emphasise the message to the reader.'The Tortoise and the Hare' is one such fable where the message is in the proverb at the end – 'slow and steady wins the race'.
    The morally good character is rewarded, while the morally bad character is punished

    Explains the qualities of justice and fairness to children and teach them that good behaviour is appreciated while bad behaviour can bring harm.

    'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' from Aesop's Fables (c. 620–560 BCE).
    Fables are typically set in the countrysideAnimals, birds, plants, beasts, or forces of nature, such as wind and rain are featured. Animals in particular are granted human qualities to help allegorise the moral message.Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell.

    Examples of fables

    Let's take a look at some examples of fables, including short fables with morals.

    Aesop's Fables (c. 620–560 BCE)

    Although the origins of Aesop's Fables and their authorship are obscure, it is undeniable that this is an important collection of stories. It is argued that Aesop's Fables have a Greek origin.

    The first print edition of Aesop's Fables in English was by William Caxton in 1484. Over the years, there have been numerous adaptations and retellings of the fables in this collection. Largely, they have been made suitable to be used as teaching tools to teach good values and morals to children.

    Some of the most famous fables in this collection and the morals they impart are listed below:

    'The Dog and the Reflection'

    A dog with a bone in its mouth is crossing a bridge over a pond. It sees its own reflection in the water, but it does not realise that it is not seeing another dog but itself. Its attention is on the bone in the reflection, which it covets.

    Out of its greed for the bone in the reflection, the dog attempts to frighten the dog in the water by barking at it. When the dog barks, the bone falls out of its mouth into the water. Because of the dog's greed, it loses what it already had.

    The lesson of the fable is: be happy with what you have.

    'The Lion, the Ass and the Fox'

    A lion, ass, and fox are hunting together and manage to accumulate a big pile of meat to feast on. The lion asks the ass to divide the pile fairly among the 3, which the ass does. Because the lion believes that, as the king of the jungle, it deserves a bigger portion, the lion becomes enraged and kills the ass.

    The lion then asks the fox to divide the pile fairly. The fox gives most of the meat to the lion, taking only a small portion for itself. The lion accepts this and asks how the fox was able to divide the meat so fairly. The fox answers that it learned to do so from the ass.

    The lesson of the fable is: learn from the failure and misfortune of others.

    'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'

    A shepherd, out of boredom and mischief, cries 'wolf!' while herding the sheep. Hearing his cries, the local people rush to his aid, only to realise that he was being naughty and there was no wolf. He repeats this, and the villagers hurry to help him a second time, only to find that there is, again, no wolf. They express their anger towards his pranks.

    Eventually, a wolf does come to attack the shepherd's herd. This time, when the boy cries 'wolf,' no one comes to help as they think he is once again lying.

    The lesson of the fable is: honesty is the best policy.

    Examples of fables: literary books

    The following examples of literary book are also fables:

    Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell

    As the title suggests, the story is set on a farm, where a pig named Napoleon becomes a dictator and commands the other animals to do tasks for it to stay in power. The story is an allegory of the Stalinist regime in the early twentieth century, of which Orwell was a vocal critic.

    Horton Hears a Who! (1954) by Dr Seuss

    Horton Hears a Who! is a children's book about an elephant named Horton and his adventures helping the people of Whoville. Whoville is a tiny planet on a speck of dust, the residents of which, although microscopic, are worth helping in Horton's opinion.

    Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams

    Watership Down is a series of adventures embarked upon by a group of rabbits. It consists of four parts and an epilogue. The narrative presents themes of heroism and heroic quests, as the adventures mirror the epic journeys of famous literary heroes such as Odysseus.

    Fables today

    As fables have learning value and can be used as instruments to instil good moral values in children, they are widely read in schools, libraries, churches, and at home to children of different age groups. Fables that have travelled down generations through the oral storytelling tradition continue to be adapted, reinterpreted, and revised today.

    Fable - Key takeaways

    • Fables are fictional narratives in the form of verse or prose that feature animals, beasts, flowers, or elements of nature, which are assigned human attributes.
    • Fables are simple and short and do not include complex characters or winding narratives.
    • Fables typically teach a moral lesson at the end, and often are read and enjoyed by children.
    • Fables include narratives set in the countryside, where the morally good characters are rewarded, and the morally bad characters are punished.
    • Examples of short fables include 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' and 'The Lion, the Ass and the Fox.' Examples of fables as literary books include Animal Farm (1945) and Horton Hears a Who! (1972).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fable

    What is a fable?

    A fable is a fictional story in the form of a poem or prose, which features anthropomorphic forms of creatures, animals, plants, birds etc. to teach the reader a moral lesson.

    What is a fable story?

    A story is a fable when it features animals, plants, birds, or creatures that are given human attributes. A fable teaches a morally valuable lesson to the reader.

    What is the difference between a myth and a fable?

    A myth is a folktale explaining the origins of a belief system or culture. A fable is a fictional story with anthropomorphic beings to teach a moral lesson.

    What is the purpose of a fable in literature?

    Fables are meant to teach moral values to children. In fables, the morally good character is rewarded, while the morally bad character is punished. This is to explain the qualities of justice and fairness to children, and to teach them that good behaviour is appreciated, while bad behaviour can bring harm. An example of a fable where the morally bad character is punished is ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ from Aesop’s Fables (c. 620-560 BCE).

    What makes a fable?

    Fables are typically short and simple, set in a countryside, and teach moral lessons to the reader.

    What is an example of a fable?

    An example of a fable includes Aesop's Fables, which includes moral stories such as 'The Dog and the Reflection', 'The Lion, the Ass and the Fox', and 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Fables are _____

    Which of the following is a fable?

    Which of the following is a famous author of fables?

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